By Stephen Leahy
CHANGWON, South Korea, Oct 25, 2011 (IPS)
Every six seconds a child dies of hunger-related causes.
That disturbing reality seems as remote as the moon here in the ultra-modern Changwon Convention Centre, where delegates struggled to create effective ways to stem the ongoing decline of food-producing lands.
Each year, 12 million hectares of land are lost where 20 million tonnes of grain might have been grown, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. And that loss of food-producing lands is unlikely to change in the near future, even as the final gavel fell in the early morning hours of Oct. 22 at the end the two-week biannual 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10).
“This conference has been highly successful,” said Lee Don Koo, minister of the Korean Forest Service and COP 10 president and host.
It was certainly the largest international gathering on land degradation, with 6,450 participants from 161 countries, including 83 ministers and deputy ministers. Lee Don Koo said this meeting sent a strong message to the world community about the need for strong, sustainable land management and for the pressing need to set targets to reduce land degradation.
“Our goal is to build a land-degradation-neutral world,” said Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UNCCD. The target date to reach that goal is 2030, Gnacadja told IPS.
Gnacadja would like countries to officially adopt this goal at the RIO+20 conference in June 2012 in Brazil.
It has taken nearly 20 years to get to the point where there is agreement on 11 scientific indicators to measure land degradation and its impacts. Development and implementation of those indicators will take some years yet. The Convention has yet to address the economic and policy drivers of land degradation, acknowledged Antonio Rocha Magalhães, chair of the Committee on Science and Technology.
Although overuse and misuse of land are direct causes of land degradation, the root causes are often economic, such as mining soil to maximise short-term returns and inappropriate policy decisions like making pastoralists stay in one place and farming drylands. Magalhães said such issues will be the subject of the next scientific meetings to be held within 18 months.
“We will provide advice and recommendations to national governments but it is up to them to act,” he told IPS.
Governments will also need to know the multi-billion-dollar price-tag of the full costs of land degradation.
A new global assessment called the Economics of Land Degradation was announced last week in Changwon. The intent is to emulate the successful Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project and provide policy makers with detailed assessments of the real value of “free” services provided by species and ecosystems such as cleaning water, and providing food and fuel.
There is real urgency in getting the land degradation assessment completed, and some results will be released within a year. The complete assessment will be issued before the next COP in two years’ time, said Mark Schauer of the Centre for Development Research in Bonn, Germany, which is running the assessment with funding from the German government.
While not all impacts were included, the cost of land degradation is at least 66 billion dollars annually, said Ephraim Nkonya, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Nkonya’s study was published earlier this year and will be incorporated into the new global assessment, he said.
Another first in Changwon was the engagement of the corporate sector. Nearly 100 business leaders, primarily from Asia, such as Yuhan-Kimberly, Cargill Korea, and Ellion Resources Group, acknowledged that business was part of the problem in land degradation but also part of the solution. They launched a Sustainable Land Management Business Forum that will be based in Seoul with a target of 1,000 businesses participating by 2020.
Members will be asked to follow a volunteer code of conduct and mobilise their financial might to prevent degradation and restore damaged lands. Not only does the corporate sector own or lease millions of square kilometres of land, there is an emerging carbon market not just for planting trees but for soaking up carbon in the soils.
That raises the spectre of even more land grabbing, according to civil society. Already more than 220 million hectares are locked up in long-term leases by foreign companies in Africa.
“We think the UNCCD should push for a moratorium on land grabbing,” said Khadija Razavi of the Centre for Sustainable Development (CENESTA). Razavi and others in the 60 civil society organisations attending the COP wanted the issue of land grabbing to be taken up by member states, but it was not.
“They said nothing after I raised the issue in the open dialogue session,” Razavi told IPS.
Civil society organisations were also dubious about the warm welcome given to the business sector. The UNCCD has two sisters who were born in 1992 at the Rio convention – the big climate convention and mid-sized biodiversity convention. Business was heavily courted by all three “sisters” for the oft stated purpose of “mobilising the much needed funds” to achieve their respective objections. Desertification can now claim it is in business too.
“If we go together, we will go further,” said Kook-Hyun Moon, former CEO of diaper and toilet tissue maker Yuhan Kimberly Co, and leader of the land degradation business group